Baltimore Hip-Hop Waits Anxiously For Its Big Moment
This is a hip-hop town, please believe it. Sometimes it feels like there’s a rapper on every corner in Baltimore. Ever since the culture first migrated out of the Bronx in the early ’80s, Baltimore has been home to a diverse hip-hop scene. But throughout the ’90s, it was deep underground, practically buried, even as hip-hop was on its way to swallowing the rest of the world. Even five or six years ago, you’d be out of luck trying to find a handful Baltimore rappers with a citywide profile, let alone a regional or national buzz.
How things have changed. This month, Blender magazine asked Mullyman to lead its readers on a tour of Baltimore—a local, unsigned rapper taking a national entertainment magazine to the Patapsco Flea Market and chilling at a crab house. MTV is currently showing a “You Hear It First” segment on B-more urban music. It may only be a few minutes long and focus mostly on club music and the only two Baltimore rappers currently signed to major labels, Bossman and Young Leek, but it’s still the biggest shout-out the city has had since that silver-haired dude was on every video channel singing about ladies’ underwear.
And it’s not just a little love from outside Charm City limits. The idea of a true “local hip-hop hit” is no longer a rapper’s day-dream. The scene is getting its act together, growing from a disorganized collection of crews and MCs into the beginnings of a self-contained DIY movement, a network of rappers, producers, studio owners, promoters, bloggers, graphic artists, and filmmakers. Baltimore is still full of hundreds of hip-hop hopefuls—it’s just that their chances aren’t quite so hopeless anymore.
But the key word remains “hopeful.” Even within city limits, Baltimore hip-hop is largely an underground phenomenon. There are only a handful of live venues that regularly present hip-hop shows. Beef between rival crews is a part of the culture. Up-and-comers have to compete with heavy hitters like T.I. and Nelly for local radio spins. And after numerous false alarms, local hip-hop fans seem to come back to the same question every year: When do we go national?
Despite the strides, Baltimore hip-hop is still a scene with more questions than answers. In early June, we convened an informal round table at City Paper’s offices, bringing together representatives in local urban music from the street to the boardroom. Later in July, we took the tape recorder out to talk to some people we thought we missed. The question was simple, yet far too complex to cover in one article: Where is Baltimore hip-hop in 2006?
“The industry as a whole does not view Baltimore as a place where hip-hop lives, and we’re trying to do our part to change that,” Victor Starr says. Starr took over as program director at 92Q, Baltimore’s top urban radio station, three years ago. He rocks the crisp shirt and jeans of modern urban business casual and speaks with an “it is what it is” certainty about his vision for local hip-hop. He says he’s on year three of a five-year plan to make the city the next national hip-hop mecca.
“We’re going to have to have a song that comes out that I play 75 times a week. And once we have that one song that blows up, every A&R from every major label is gonna be camped out in Baltimore ready to sign people.”
But where is that hit going to come from? In the last five years, local hip-hop has finally started to filter down from specialist shows like Sunday night’s Rap Attack to the station’s all-important daytime playlist. But 92Q has a contentious relationship with some in the city’s hip-hop scene. Not too many rappers will say it outright—who wants to shoot down their chances for getting on the air?—but many feel that, in a small town like Baltimore with limited options for exposure, 92Q isn’t as supportive of local underground hip-hop as it could be.
“First of all, this is not a small town,” Starr corrects. “The radio market here is 2.2 million people. Half of D.C. can hear 92Q. D.C. is 4.5 million people. We don’t live in a small town. We live in a metroplex. This is not Paducah, Kentucky.”
As with many scenes in Baltimore, this “big small town” mentality breeds complacency. It also means many young rappers don’t treat their music with the seriousness it deserves, whether creatively or on the business end. Starr’s advice to the local hip-hop is simple: Step your game up.
“If you listen to D.C. radio, the local music you hear . . . those records, they’re garbage,” he says. “There was no bar set. When I came in [to 92Q], I said, ‘OK guys, here’s the bar.’ You would not believe the CDs we get. We got one the other day, labeled with a Sharpie, covered in saran wrap, and they took a blow dryer to seal it. No case.”
Starr says that 99 percent of the local CDs he receives end up in the trash due to poor production. Local artists have to compete not just with the Jay-Z’s of the world but also the hottest beat makers. Major labels no longer sign acts based on demos.
“There’s no artist development anymore,” Starr says. “You’re not gonna be on the bench for two years learning how to talk to media, sitting down with producers, learning how to write records. Labels want to sign projects that are already moving up the charts.”
But your average 17-year-old with a knack for poetry or a talent for music doesn’t necessarily know how to craft a radio-ready hit. And Baltimore lacks the industry infrastructure of a New York, an Atlanta, a place where untested talent can learn the ropes. Hip-hop here is still a self-taught art.
And radio is still a market driven by, as 92Q’s DJ K-Swift says, “your average female that works, aged 18-34. Whatever the females call to request, that’s what [92Q] plays over and over.” And what that seems to be, aside from R&B, is smooth, pop hip-hop hits. The paucity of music industry resources vs. Starr’s need to play records that can compete with Nelly has created a nasty feedback loop.
“The radio is not here to break artists, it’s here to play hits,” says Shawn Caesar, co-founder of Unruly Records, the Baltimore club music empire. “It’s an ill Catch-22, but that’s what the game is.”
like many genres, hip-hop’s relation-ship with money and success is deeply conflicted. But unlike many genres, hip-hop is incredibly lucrative, which means that, like professional sports, it attracts kids who see their favorite rapper sporting a small country’s gross national product on his wrist and think, I want that, too. Hip-hop and unrealistic expectations just seem to go together in 2006.
“Half these rappers that are trying to rap need to stop doing it,” recording engineer Mike McIntosh beefs through the burnt embers of a Jamaican accent, slightly agitated under a nest of dreadlocks. “[For them] it’s just another way out [of the ghetto].”
Especially in a city like Baltimore, which is teeming with disadvantaged young people, the local hip-hop scene has seen an explosion in new rappers, the same ones flooding Victor Starr’s office with demos. Young Leek is barely old enough to drive, and he’s already been courted by Jay-Z. That’s a powerful image for many kids in Baltimore, especially if the guy headed for a major label grew up only a few blocks away.
But McIntosh knows that a desire to get out of the ghetto is not enough to actually pursue a career in music. He runs the Architect Recording Studio, one of the city’s most popular places to lay a verse down. In the past six years he’s seen plenty of young kids with Cristal dreams but Steel Reserve drive who foolishly think success is a given the minute they cut a track.
“A lot of these artists . . . they’re not really going to the studio because they love it, man,” McIntosh says. “If they got a choice, they get a booty call and it’s a [recording] session, they bounce.
“It’s a business,” he adds. “There’s money it. I can’t feed my kids off of freestyles.”
For good or ill, hip-hop has enshrined the self-made man or woman who has escaped a life of poverty or crime—the small time hustler becomes the $80 million man. But though hip-hop’s cutthroat capitalism is fraught with contradictions, the art that goes along with it can still be a powerful motivator.
“Let’s say you have an artist and all he does is sell crack,” says local MC Ogun. “If he develops himself to the point where he can get his record heard, that could make him change his life. I feel like when people get involved with the [hip-hop] culture it changes them as a person. If you start taking it serious, you’re not gonna go to the club with your gun, y’know?” He pauses, laughing. “You may leave it in the car.”
But the reality of Baltimore’s poverty—much different from the studio gangsta poverty pulp that hip-hop continues to sell—is in everyone’s face, 24-7. Ronald Clinton Jr., manager for Ogun’s crew, Real on Purpose Entertainment, is far less optimistic: “There’s so many things wrong here, socially, that a few rappers getting money aren’t going to change anything.”
“A lot of these kids are fucked,” Ogun counters. “It’s ground zero out here. So when they get involved and get buzz and get a brief picture of this dream and hear somebody say, ‘Yo, I heard ya song on the radio,’ that can be the difference between them doing something stupid or them saying, ‘Nah, I can’t do that no more.’”
And now that hip-hop’s money culture has come to Baltimore—even if we’re usually talking four-, not seven-figure sums—it’s created schisms within the scene just as it has elsewhere. For every young kid who views the scene as a way to flash and burn, there’s someone like McIntosh who sees it as a business first, a way to support his family.
“Before I forget, and I’m saying this off experience,” he says. “Yo, to the kids—you ain’t gotta rap. [If you rap] you the last one to get paid. I can do what I do until I’m 60. There’s a lot of money out there. Find that gap, that niche, and fill it.”
But for every businessman like McIntosh, there’s someone like Sekani Williams, who feels hip-hop’s art and culture become unbalanced when commerce is the prime motivator.
“When the first thought is what’s gonna sell versus the integrity of the music, I think that’s totally backwards,” says Williams, an outspoken Baltimore-based writer best known for MTV’s “hip-hopera” Carmen. “The radio is not the end-all be-all.”
Now, no one we talked to was offering to rap for free. Wherever someone falls on the hip-hop purity scale, people in Baltimore’s hip-hop community, like most people everywhere, want to use their gifts and talents to make a living. It’s the “how” and the “why” that have become contentious.
“Our goal is to use our art to feed families,” says MC Ohh from long-running group Brown F.I.S.H. “Our goal is to get money but stay true to our art. It wasn’t really a plan to go against the grain. Around ’99 the plan was to get a deal. But after getting into the record business and seeing how it worked . . . ”
Ohh says Brown F.I.S.H. was offered a seven-figure deal by Def Jam South three years ago, with a cool hundred grand as a signing bonus on top. But the money was a carrot and the deal was stacked in the label’s favor. So Brown F.I.S.H. turned it down, continuing to build a name for itself in the hip-hop underground, maintaining control of both its music and money.
“And now we’re eating and reaping the benefits of that,” he says. But he also understands why so many people, especially poor African-American kids desperate to break out of Baltimore, are quick to sign the first contract that comes along. “Going after art tears families apart, man. [It] breaks relationships up because so much is invested in it.” The F.I.S.H., in case you were wondering, stands for “First I’ll Save Hip-Hop.”
Everyone in the scene seems to agree that the come-up is right around the corner. “It’s a time thing,” Unruly Records’ Shawn Caesar says. “Between Bossman and Young Leek, we have an artist that will hit nationally.” But many Baltimore hip-hoppers are no longer content to sit on their hands waiting for The One, from whom all other rappers will be signed. And most agree that collective action is the way forward, whether it’s as simple as artists collaborating on a project or just showing up at each other’s release parties.”
“That’s the main thing I’m really interested in—trying to organize people,” Courtney “C-Love” Wheeler says. “Instead of promoting yourself, let’s promote Baltimore hip-hop as a whole. People don’t understand that a movement is about collective work and responsibility.”
Wheeler first made a name for herself co-promoting the monthly Style Warz freestyle battle at 5 Seasons with DJ P-Funk (“She’s All That,” Arts & Entertainment, June 29, 2005), and she’s spent the last year or so chronicling Baltimore hip-hop in almost obsessive detail on her blog, www.its
baltimorebaby.com, a hub for the city’s increasingly net-savvy hip-hop scene. Keeping up has become a full-time job. Message boards like www.elementsparty.com, e-mail lists, and everyone’s favorite online networking site have connected a formerly fractured scene. “Baltimore is really representing on MySpace,” Wheeler says.
Wheeler would like to see this unifying of the community go even further. “Take it back to the park,” Wheeler says, talking about the block parties of hip-hop’s earliest days. “Perhaps not literally, but bring back that feeling of ‘connectedness through struggle’ that used to exist amongst the poor kids that thought it was the coolest thing ever to express themselves in a way that only certain people got.”
But a place to experience that connection in the city is still hard to come by. Brown F.I.S.H. has been pushing live hip-hop over the last few years, citing the vitality of Baltimore’s African-American live music scene of the ’50s and ’60s, the legacy of Pennsylvania Avenue, as something the current crop of hip-hop and urban acts should look to emulate. As of now, Wheeler says venues like the Ottobar, Sonar (where she’s launching a new monthly event called It’s Baltimore Baby! Live), and especially 5 Seasons where B-more hip-hop is thriving.
Style Warz is probably the city’s most popular hip-hop event. Style Warz isn’t just a venue for local MCs to woodshed and develop, a venue sorely lacking for years, but an almost ruthlessly organized event designed to provide maximum entertainment value, rather than just a place where people can trade insults and front onstage with their crews. Other freestyle showcases like Season of the Microphone Mondays at the Yabba Pot, led by the appropriately named Unison Collective, have sprung up in the past 24 months, closing a little of the distance between local hip-hop artists and fans.
You may not be able to feed your family off a freestyle, as Mike McIntosh says, but these are venues for community building. Rappers, producers, and DJs can build a supportive audience. And fans can pick up CD mixtapes—a midway point between a cheap demo and a slick album—which have become the scene’s lifeblood.
One place nearly everyone can get a shot is every Friday from midnight to 5 a.m. on the long-running Strictly Hip-Hop show on WEAA (88.9 FM), Morgan State University’s radio station. “It’s like a breeding ground,” says Strictly Hip-Hop co-host Ahk. He receives up to 10 CDs a week from local artists hoping that their joint will get played on “Test Spin,” where callers judge unsigned hype.
“We’ll work with you somewhat so you can get polished, so that by the time you go to a 92Q, you should be all ready,” says Ahk, a 25-year-old radio vet of four years. “But ultimately as we move along we expect growth. If you don’t grow, you don’t need to do it. You taking up space.”
Growth is the watchword for the local hip-hop community right now; in many ways, these are still its formative years. (Which is not meant to take away from the pioneering work of Baltimore rappers who built the scene throughout the ’80s and ’90s.) Artists have begun to realize that perfecting their craft and staying on the grind are smarter moves than waiting for a major label to swoop in and drop you at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100.
What’s different about Baltimore hip-hop in 2006 is a newfound sense of realism. The city continues to play the wait and see game nationally, as shows jump off every week and new mixtapes drop constantly around town. The scene forges on, a little less bitter but just as anxious to blow. One thing’s for sure—it will never be as bleak as it was back in the day.
“I just feel like it’s a golden era right now,” says Jahli, one half of Golden Seal, a local female duo who persevered through the drought of the ’90s and into the scene’s current renaissance. “Of course there are barriers, and people may feel like we’re not getting enough attention or respect. But you’re always gonna feel like that, because you’re never where you wanna be. That should be what drives you harder.”
And that’s the bugged-out thing: For all the seeming pessimism, about the game and about the city itself, people are more optimistic about Baltimore hip-hop than ever before. For a change, people are excited about the future, rather than complaining about the present. Baltimore hip-hop is going to keep pushing, when ever and if ever the rest of the world catches up.
“Something’s gotta happen, because it’s time for me to blow up,” Mike Macintosh quips. “I got land to buy. I got a house to build.”
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